The kinds of short stories that I most enjoy are those with an ending that is shocking and/or leaves you pondering about what might happen next. I love that sense of participation, even after I’ve finished reading. Here are some of my favorite examples.
As for many of my generation, my first encounter with a memorable short story was in high school, when we read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I still remember my astonishment, though Jackson slowly transforms the tone from one of a village festival to something much more menacing. Jackson doesn’t explain the origin of the lottery, but she gives us some clues to piece together.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” has a horrifying ending, and the reader is left to deduce exactly what will happen to the narrator. The way Poe builds the suspense somehow makes the story’s conclusion both inevitable and surprising.
Many of the stories in Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions culminate in a completely unexpected way. In “The Circular Ruins,” a man constructs another man by dreaming him, piece by piece. He then tutors the young man, and erases his memory of his origin, so that he will believe himself to be a real person. The creator then sends the “son” off. One day when he hears that the son can walk through fire unharmed, he worries that the son will realize that he is only a phantom. In the last paragraph, the dreamer is engulfed by a forest fire in which he, too, is unharmed.
The endings in Ethan Canin’s wonderful collection, The Emperor of the Air, aren’t frightening, but they are all poignant. One of my favorites is “We Are Nighttime Travelers.” (I also love Canin’s titles.) The narrator is an older man who feels estranged from his wife of decades. During the day, he goes to the aquarium, but tells her he is volunteering. He also secretly reads poetry. The wife reveals that someone has been leaving her notes. The way Canin concludes their story will touch your heart and leave you imagining their possible future.
In Dianne Ebertt Beeaff’s collection, On Traigh Lar Beach, every story leaves you speculating. In “Erica,” the narrator has won a writing contest and now has a two-book contract, but no ideas for what to write. She travels with her husband to an island in the Outer Hebrides, where numerous sites could be the kernel of a story, but none seem to take flight. In the penultimate paragraph the narrator lists the objects they have found on the beach. “A cigarette lighter, a jar of pickled onions, the handle of a child’s bucket, an empty ketchup holder, a rock-concert laminate badge, a green plastic laundry basket, a packet of arthritis pills.” Then the story ends with, “Now where did these come from?” That is a treasure trove of inspiration for the narrator and also for the reader. Any of the items could birth its own tale.
When the Paper Lantern Writers first decided to do a short story collection, which turned out to be Unlocked, I was a bit nervous. I think of myself as a novelist. I have written a few short stories, and even had one published, but it was set in 2060, hardly historical fiction. Still, I embraced the challenge. Writers are often told to write the book you want to read, and I tried to apply that to my story. In “The Shell,” set in 1679 Amsterdam, a woman’s husband discovers some drawings she had hidden away. One is of a man she loved before her marriage. There are many things you might suspect, just given those details, but I don’t think you will guess the ending. I hope when you have finished, you will gasp, and wonder what might come next for my characters.
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Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.